une amèricaine en picardie? tu es perdue? / by Lily Greenberg

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When I applied to be a language assistant in France, I had two goals in mind: I wanted to become fluent in French, and I wanted to gain some experience in the classroom. I requested to go to the south, but I didn’t care so much where. France was France.

I was offered a position in May 2017. Of the 17 académies (school districts) in France, I was placed in the académie d’Amiens, of which I knew nothing about, not even by name. Wikipedia informed me that Amiens is a decent sized city in Northern France. France was France was France.

I spent my whole summer thinking I would be in Amiens, or close to it. Then I received my actual contract, which listed my schools in a town called Soissons. Initially, I was relieved, as Soissons is easier to pronounce than Amiens. According to Wikipedia, it’s a commune (small town) of about 28,000 in population, 110 km east of Amiens, and 100 km northeast of Paris.

It’s February, and I have been living here for almost 5 months now.

The region where I live is called Picardie. Here are some fast facts:

  1. Picardie is the poorest region in France (not including the DOM's).
  2. Picardie was the most affected region from World War I (Soissons was 80% eradicated in 1918).
  3. Picardie used to be an industrial capital, with tons of factories, but now most of the factories are shut down, and there aren't really any jobs here--unless you're an educator, doctor, etc.--so most people live here and commute to Paris or other nearby cities.
  4. Picardie is the region that voted for Marine Le Pen in the previous election.
  5. Education-wise, Soissons is in the académie d'Amiens, which is the weakest académie in France, but it's also in the département (county) of l'Aisne, which is the weakest section of the district of Amiens. So, bottom of the barrel. 

The region where I live is called Picardie, and I absolutely love it here. 

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Nowhere in Picardie is really a destination. They don’t get tourists, aside from WWI historians, or architects fascinated by gothic cathedrals. The only other Americans I know in this region are other language assistants like me, blindly placed here and up for the challenge.

I love living in a non-destination. The primary reason? I am useful. Few people speak English here, which makes me automatically an asset to not just the schools where I work, but also the broader community.

Sometimes I'm really useful. My first week here, I met a WWI historian at a Salon du Livre (book fair), who is currently having his new book about Franco-American relations during WWI translated into English. He speaks zero English, and was absolutely thrilled to meet an American. Since I've been here, we've formed this funny friendship based around museum trips and his wife's home-cooking. His book release is at the end of this month, and I'll be publicly reading a section in English. 

Most of the time my service is smaller. Last week I arrived to the gym at my usual time to find an employee waiting for me, asking if I could help him make on online purchase on an English website. Earlier today one of my students approached me in a panic demanding to know what "loading" meant. English is so ridiculously embedded in global media, music, film--I'm like a little gateway to the world. 

All of this snowballs into a big old EXOTIC factor. When I meet new people, they are shocked to find an American living in Soissons of all places. They ask me if I am lost. Comment se passe qu'une américaine s'installe en Picardie? Pourquoi t'as choisi Soissons? They are keenly aware that this is not a destination, and most likely would not even choose to be here themselves. I've met people who have never even seen an American before, apart from film or television. Yet here we are. Maybe this is my Enneagram 4-ness speaking, but it feels good to be noticed, to be different and interesting. It feels good to have strangers double-take when I speak English on the street, to have people overhear my accent in bars and approach me so as to shamelessly try out the three English phrases they know. It feels good to have students swarm around me in the mornings shouting (a bit aggressively for 8am) hello! hello! how are you, miss? I am fine! I am so-so! hello! 

That's not to say that living here is all sunshine. It's quite literally the opposite--I haven't seen the sun in weeks. The air is cold and wet, so that anything close to freezing just soaks right into your bones. Not to mention the loneliness that accompanies moving to a foreign country. And while I'm improving my French all the time, Picardie is a rough location for an intermediate level. People speak so quickly here, skipping whole syllables or words, that I often feel as though a conversation in front of me is actually happening about two rooms over. Every so often a phrase cuts through the walls and I understand, but much of it is white noise. I'm strong one-on-one, but quiet in group settings (I now have an incredible amount of compassion for international students who didn't talk so much in class--usually by the time I have something to say in a group, we've already moved on to a new subject). 

Mais petit à petit, j'arrive. I discover little secrets about this town, about this language and culture, every day. I understand the classist breakdown of our supermarkets, the general crowd for each bar/nightclub, the reputations for each school, and the drug-dealing locations. I can't go to our one young person's bar--called Le Havana, like the capital of Cuba--without seeing someone I know. 

I'm living in arguably the shittiest part of France, and this is actually one of the things I really like about living here. No one is expecting me or asking me to like Soissons, and so I do. If given the choice, I would choose the interesting--the ugly, the poor--over the the aesthetic, every time. Interesting is more beautiful, more challenging, because there is so much to unearth, question, and be dumbstruck by. 

My best example of why I love living in Soissons would be our local cathedral. Visually it is both magnificent and strange--magnificent because it is a massive Gothic cathedral dating back to the 11th century, and strange because it's half-finished. The cathedral is asymmetrical, missing one of its two huge towers, apparently because at the time it was being built, the workers ran out of stone slabs, and then there was a war, blah blah blah and a thousand years later it's still not finished. My favorite excuse for its asymmetry was from one older Soissonais who told me that by the time they acquired the stone needed to complete the cathedral, Gothic architecture was no longer in style.

 Not my photo, Cathedral's under construction, I hate scaffolding, thanks Internet, etc.

Not my photo, Cathedral's under construction, I hate scaffolding, thanks Internet, etc.

I started attending mass at the cathedral when I arrived here, and joined the choir shortly after. To say that our choir is sub-par would be incredibly generous. Imagine being in a thousand year old cathedral, and mass begins, with the drama of incense and candles, and then the choir starts to sing, and it's.... completely out of tune. And then, because you're in a cathedral, the voices amplify and echo off of the walls, and you literally can't escape the pitchy ranges. 

But I wouldn't have it any other way. These people I have found at the cathedral are so unbelievably warm. They welcome me into their homes, invite me to dinner, ask me to join bible studies. If I miss mass or choir rehearsal, I will get a string of texts from little old ladies wondering if I am sick. 

For me, this is Soissons--it's the half-finished weird cathedral filled with pitchy music and hearts of gold. It's not pretty, but it's interesting, and therefore all the more beautiful.